Is Amy married to a narcissist? He is self-obsessed and criticises her but whenever she says she will leave him he turns into a different man. She asked Healthista therapist Sally Brown, what she should do
Two years ago, I met the most amazing man who swept me off my feet. I have never known an experience like it, it was like someone had turned on the lights in my world. When we met (at work), he was in an unhappy marriage, and I was in a lacklustre relationship and we bonded over that. We’d sneak out to the pub at lunchtime or just after work and talk and talk – it was a very intense time. I’ve always been a bit of a ‘rescuer’ and he definitely needed rescuing – as well as his cold, self-centred wife, he was dealing with what he said was bullying and potential constructive dismissal at work. I’d never had a relationship before with someone who was so in touch with his feelings and open and it felt very intoxicating. It felt like we were meant to be together and the sex was amazing (he is also very charismatic and good looking).
I often come home to find he’s already half way through a bottle of wine, with nothing to eat in the house and every dish he’s used that day in the sink.
Fast forward two years and it’s a different story. He left his wife, I left my boyfriend and we moved in together and got married as soon as his divorce came through. Our honeymoon period lasted around six months. He is now unemployed (he quit in a rage after a huge row with his boss) and there are endless reasons why he can’t apply for jobs or chase up contacts (it would be ‘humiliating’ or the job is ‘beneath him’). Instead, he has big start-up ideas that never seem to get anywhere (always other people’s fault). Meanwhile, he gives me grief every time I work late, even though we are living on my income alone. I often come home to find he’s already half way through a bottle of wine, with nothing to eat in the house and every dish he’s used that day in the sink. If I complain, he flies into a rage about how insensitive and selfish I am.
He is competely self-obsessed and never even asks me about my day. He used to make me feel like I’m a goddess but now I feel constantly criticised (his latest thing is that I have ‘sold out’ and become ‘all corporate’ because I’ve been promoted, even though we desperately need the extra money, as he has debts and expensive tastes). I don’t know how, but he manages to manipulate every situation to make me feel like I am in the wrong and somehow letting him down. My big problem is that time is moving on – I’m now 36 and have always wanted children. He says he can’t even consider a baby while things are ‘so hard for him’. He has two grown-up children that he never sees from a relationship prior to his marriage (he blames their mother for ‘turning them against him’).
Recently a good friend who knows us both suggested he might be a narcissist and urged me to leave him.
What’s confusing is whenever I reach the end of my tether and tell him I want to leave, he’s super-attentive again, telling me how much he adores me and convinces me to stay. We have amazing sex, then within a few days it’s business as usual. I also worry about him being faithful – I have no concrete evidence, but he spends a lot of time texting and never lets me near his phone. He also flirts so much when we go out it’s embarrassing. When I challenge him, he convinces me I’m paranoid. I’m so tired of this roller-coaster and I just want a normal life. Recently, a good friend who knows us both suggested he might be a narcissist and urged me to leave him. But it looks like he has finally landed a good job so I wonder whether things will now get back to the way they were, then we’ll have a baby and live happily ever after. Is there hope, or should I bail out now?
Amy, 36, London
The short answer is yes, you should bail out now. And yes, it sounds like he is a narcissist, which means the only way he will change is to become a more exaggerated version of himself. It’s highly likely he is having an affair or at the very least building an emotional connection with someone else who can offer him the unconditional adoration and attention that he so desperately needs. And that he no longer gets from you since the scales fell from your eyes.
the only way he will change is to become a more exaggerated version of himself
Narcissist is a term that’s bandied around these days, and applied to anyone who’s a bit ‘me, me, me’. But there are degrees of narcissism – most of us have some narcissistic traits – and at its most extreme, it’s a full-blown personality disorder. Here’s the clinical definition – see how many of these boxes your husband ticks. Narcissists have a strong sense of entitlement and belief that they are extra talented and special so deserve greatness and success. In relationships, their needs are of primary importance and they must be adored and admired. They can be exploitative of other people without ever acknowledging it and feel little real empathy for other people’s problems or challenges because they are never as important as their own. Underneath the often arrogant exterior lies low self-esteem, insecurity and inadequacy.
For a narcissist, living without adoration is like living without sunshine…
Many narcissists grew up constantly striving to meet the unrealistic expectations of super-critical parents. Their conviction that they are special and need special treatment is a defence against never feeling good enough. They shore up their poor self-worth with validation from others, which they need in unlimited amounts (what’s known as a ‘narcissist supply’). For a narcissist, living without adoration is like living without sunshine, which is why they feel compelled to seek out a new relationship as soon as the honeymoon period is over and their partner starts treating them like a human being rather than a demi-god.
A narcissist is driven to inflate their damaged ego at whatever cost to other people, even those they say they love. Criticising those close to them plus spotlighting and exaggerating faults in others is another strategy for making them feel good about themselves. By contrast, they find any criticism of themselves deeply offensive and threatening, often triggering huge rage, which can create problems in a work environment (although by contrast, many narcissists are so convinced of their innate talent and ability they are driven to reach the top of their professions, perfectly demonstrated in recent months by Donald Trump). Need I go on? Your brief description of your husband is like a textbook narcissist profile.
Every day that you stay with him you are losing your ability to see your situation objectively…
As you discovered, loving a narcissist can be intoxicating in the initial days as they convince you that you are the only one who can help them overcome their problems and achieve their dreams. Narcissists have the ability to fast-track relationships by sharing carefully chosen confidences, and putting you on a pedestal. They can make you feel special, like a ‘chosen one’. But you are special to them only because of what you can do for them. Who you really are as a person is irrelevant – it’s the levels of unconditional adoration that you can supply that’s important. Your role is to be an extension of their idealised image of themselves, a satellite to their gloriously shining planet.
It is possible to live happily with a narcissist, as long as you are prepared to sacrifice your own needs and devote your life to his. You will need to offer 100 per cent adoration at all times, verbally reassuring him daily that he is special and faultless. You must never criticise him but accept that you deserve his constant criticisms of you, because he is superior to you in every way.
Narcissists have a finely tuned radar for finding people like you, a self-confessed rescuer, who may be used to sidelining their own needs and putting others first.
You say time is of the essence and you’re right, not because your biological clock is ticking, but because you are being slowly brainwashed by this man. Right now, you know his behaviour is unacceptable, but every day that you stay with him, you are losing your ability to see your situation objectively, until eventually you will believe that you deserve his rages and criticism, and that it’s your fault that he’s unfaithful (and I can absolutely guarantee that he will stray if he hasn’t already).
I can absolutely guarantee he will stray if he hasn’t already
Narcissists have a finely tuned radar for finding people like you, a self-confessed rescuer, who may be used to sidelining their own needs and putting others first. You may have grown up with your own self-esteem issues. But you are not that person anymore – you have made a success of your career and it sounds like you have good friendships. Don’t let that ticking biological clock hijack you into staying in a relationship where none of your needs are met and you are constantly undermined. Even if he does change his mind about having children, do you really want your children to have a narcissist for a father? Apart from anything else, he will resent the demands on your attention that a baby makes, and rage at you for neglecting him (before looking elsewhere for the attention that is his life-blood).
It’s time to start being open with your family and friends that you are living with a man with a personality disorder…
If you feel brave enough, it might help you to reach out to his ex-wife to see if she is amenable to meeting up for an honest chat. My guess is that you will find that she is no more ‘cold and self-centred’ than you are. And that her life has flourished since the narcissist who was draining her mental and emotional energy moved onto you, his next victim.
It’s time to start being open with friends and family about the fact that you are living with a man with a personality disorder (when you do eventually split, he will tell everyone who will listen how badly you have behaved and how he is a victim, so you need people to see your side now). It’s also worth discussing your situation with a solicitor, in case you need to make any changes now to protect yourself financially when you split. And you need all the support you can get, so do consider getting some personal counselling (I haven’t suggested couples counselling because it rarely works with narcissists and they can manipulate counsellors into colluding with them).
Or you could take a wait and see approach, fuelled by that flicker of hope that he will change once he’s back at work. In which case, here is my prediction of what’s most likely to happen – within a few months of starting his new job, he will start an intense friendship with a work colleague, just like he did with you, and he will eventually leave you. It may sound harsh, but for your sake, I hope that comes sooner rather than later.
9 ways to spot a narcissist:
This comes from the DSM 5’s (the manual that classifies mental disorders) requirements for narcissistic personality disorder
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration [regularly fishes for compliments, and is highly susceptible to flattery].
5. Has a sense of entitlement.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling [or, I would add, unable] to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty [rude and abusive] behaviors or attitudes
Sally Brown is Healthista’s resident therapist and agony aunt. She loves finding out what makes people tick and will winkle out your life story if you sit next to her at a dinner party. She feels lucky to make a living from hearing those stories, and helping people make sense of their lives and reach their true potential. Registered with the British Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists, which means she has the qualifications and experience to work safely and effectively, she also writes about emotional and psychological health for the national press.